“In the West there was panic when the migrants multiplied on the highways. Men of property were terrified for their property. Men who had never been hungry saw the eyes of the hungry. Men who had never wanted anything very much saw the flare of want in the eyes of the migrants. And the men of the towns and of the soft suburban country gathered to defend themselves, and they reassured themselves that they were good and the invaders bad, as a man must do before he fights” (John Steinbeck, Grapes of Wrath)
In Steinbeck’s classic American novel, he tells the tale of a family from Oklahoma who migrate west to California in search of work. Theirs is a family falling apart at the seams, who barely have enough resources to sustain each other. The family members have a variety of shady pasts and flakey temperaments. They are surviving on very little, and are desperate to make a new beginning in the promised land of the West. Yet, Steinbeck’s tale is set against the backdrop of the Great Depression, where there are scant resources for everybody, and even the people who are seen to have plenty are struggling. So, as the family moves further and further west, their hopes are driven into the ground as they begin to hear that jobs aren’t in abundance and the life that they had planned out for themselves may just be a distant dream. Along the way, as well as meeting some fine-spirited allies, they encounter extreme prejudice. Hordes of immigrants have moved across the country before them, resulting in an over-supply of labour. Employers have taken advantage of this, promising wages but delivering only a third of what was promised, whilst employing three times as many people. Despite both groups being from the same country, the reaction to the new influx of “Okies” is unwelcome.
As I read the above passage, my mind instantly wandered to the events of this week, where a boat full of over 70 asylum seekers crashed at Christmas Island, killing up to 28 people. Julia Gillard rushed back from her holiday. The Opposition refused to politicise the tragedy, although Immigration spokesperson Scott Morrison said that it was “the realisation of our worst fears.” Meanwhile, with more than his usual level of self-smugness (which is saying something), everyone’s favourite conservative journalist Andrew Bolt showed no such self-restraint, calling for the Prime Minister to resign while bodies were still being pulled out of the water. Why had the government not listened to him, he opined, when he had told them time and time again that their asylum seeker policy was “luring people to their deaths“?
Is that what Andrew Bolt seems to think refugees do when they’re facing the prospect of torture, rape and mass persecution in their own countries? Sit around a table and calmly analyse the refugee policy of the country they’re headed to, weighing up whether or not they should flee there, or wait until a more benevolent leader comes into power? Really?
I recall a group of refugees being interviewed 16 or so months into Kevin Rudd’s leadership, and being asked whether or not they were aware of the new policies for asylum seekers that had been introduced by the Labor government, and whether or not that had any bearing on their decision to come. Their reply was pretty simple – no, we weren’t aware, in fact, we left our home country when John Howard was still in power.
And yet, Andrew Bolt and many others in Australia still think that the increase in asylum seekers that we are seeing is a direct result of the “softening” of border protection policies in this country. What these attitudes reveal is an intense desire to be so insular that they completely shut out the reality of what is happening all over the world. More importantly, from a political point of view, it enables parties the opportunity to attempt to provide solutions to problems which in reality, they cannot solve. That’s because the causes of these problems are often outside our direct control.
In 2008, the worldwide number of asylum claims increased by 28%. In this same period, Australia experienced a 19% increase in asylum claims. Europe, which sees the bulk of asylum seeker claims, was the most heavily hit. For example, countries like Italy experienced a 122% increase while Norway experienced a 121% increase. The simple fact of the matter is that that these worldwide increases in asylum claims came from an increase in people fleeing war, persecution, and a new sort of asylum seeker – those being forcibly displaced by climate change.
If we really think that the impact of these few thousand people coming to our country via boat is a big deal, then we need to take a reality check. The 2000 people that claimed asylum in 2009 is only a drop in the ocean compared to the 60,000 visa overstayers (the majority of them British and US tourists) we get per year. So on one hand, there are 30 times as many unwelcome (mostly Western) tourists overstaying their visa, but no discussion about how to combat this issue. Another important statistic: the number of people who arrive on boat is only 5% of the total number of asylum seekers that come to Australia. So why do we not hear any policy discussion to address the 95% of asylum seekers that arrive by plane? It just doesn’t seem to make sense.
If you were to believe our politicians, you would get the impression that Australia, compared to the rest of the world, is being overrun by refugees – that we need strong leadership and ruthless border security to repel back the tide of people wanting to come into this country. That’s simply not true. Consider this: in Pakistan now there are approximately 1.7 million Iraqi refugees. That’s the equivalent of the entire population of Perth. It’s almost the entire population of Paris.
For any country to have to deal with an influx of unexpected foreigners is a huge task, but clearly there are many places out there that are doing it tougher than we are. I recently travelled to India to work with a group of Burmese refugees who have fled their country of origin to escape persecution. The Indian government is struggling to cope with the tens and thousands of Burmese refugees on top of their own population, many of whom experience unspeakable poverty. In a country where the average standard of living is so low, and where a caste system still permeates every aspect of life, which places outsiders like the refugees at the bottom of the list, there are some severe issues to be dealt with. Then, to come back to Australia to see once again the asylum seeker issue become politicised – it’s heartbreaking.
A recent cable revealed by Wikileaks shows just what some of the politicians think about this issue. In 2009, A “key Liberal Party strategist” told US diplomats that the issue of asylum seekers was “fantastic” for the Coalition and “the more boats that come the better”. Clearly, these aren’t human beings we are talking about anymore – they’re just pawns in a political game. A political game that became farcical when Tony Abbott, in a pre-election promise, stated that he would use a “boat phone”, where he would be personally responsible for deciding which boats were allowed to enter Australian waters, and which were to be turned back. Forget the fact that under international law, and under the UN Declaration of Human Rights, this would be completely illegal; what was showed is that human lives matter for very little when there is cheap point-scoring to be had. And, we can’t ignore the contribution of the Labor government either – despite putting to bed the implementation of Temporary Protection Visas and the Pacific Solution, Gillard predictably announced the offshore processing of asylum seekers in East Timor, in effect rehashing the same Pacific Solution that was widely derided three years ago. Perhaps sensing the absurdity of it all, within days, she had completely backed away from that idea.
So far, Australia’s policies on asylum seekers have attracted the ire of the United Nations, and the High Court, which ruled that the offshore processing of Sri Lankan refugees denied them procedural fairness.
But why is there this huge deal with boat arrivals in the first place? Why is it such a big issue? And why are there so many myths flying around? Off the bat I can think of two reasons, maybe you could add more in the comments. First, asylum seekers don’t vote, so there really is nothing to be lost by targeting a group of people who can’t politically defend themselves. Second, xenophobia, fear of the foreign, is one of the most simple and basic human emotions that we can experience, because it’s such an easy reaction to invoke. And nothing is more instantly appealing to our primal thoughts than something that is easy. Because essentially, our brains are lazy. This is why, as a study showed earlier this year, people tend to doubt others who speak with foreign accents – because it reduced “cognitive fluency”. It makes it more difficult for our brains to process. And, as far as our political leaders are concerned, the less brain work needed by the public to make decisions about this issue, the better.
It really is up to us to resist this politicisation of human lives, to rise above the depths that our political parties have sunk too. To recognise, as Steinbeck wrote, “the flare of want” in the eyes of people coming to this country and not instinctively bunch together to protect ourselves from outsiders. Outsiders who deserve our compassion and empathy, not our fighting words and tough talk. Because unlike the United States in the time of Steinbeck, we are not in a Great Depression, in fact by all accounts our economy is doing better than most. I’m always heartened by the groundswell of public support for issues like same-sex marriage and the apology. Previously, these were not issues on the agenda, but the sheer weight of public opinion was able to convince our politicians that this was something that we wanted change on (granted we haven’t seen that change in the first issue yet, but hopefully it’s not too far away). I haven’t felt that groundswell of public support for the asylum seekers yet. In general, the average Australian hasn’t stood up to defend them, and insist that the government repeals their inhumane policies towards them. We have a chance here to push past all the myths and get some real discussion going, based upon fact and not scare tactics. So, let’s get talking.
UPDATE: It didn’t take long for the Opposition to use this event as another launching pad to promote their “stop the boats” mantra. As this article was being published, Tony Abbott was using those exact words.
UPDATE 2: Have stumbled across this enlightening paper in further reading on this topic, where researchers analysed the well documented relationship between fear/anxiety and hostility/aggression, within the framework of immigrants. They found that individuals with a low sense of self-perceived social power (in other words those who viewed the outcome of their fate to be highly controlled by powerful others) more likely to be aggressive and hostile to outsiders. The reasoning behind this was that these outsiders posed a threat to their already damaged sense of power. Interestingly enough, out of all the groups analysed, young males had the lowest sense of self-perceived social power. This may shed some further light onto why we often see a knee-jerk defensive reaction to the thought of asylum seekers entering our country.
Addendum: For further reading on this topic, please read Brendan’s fantastic post here from back in May, in response to the Australian government suspending asylum claims. I also highly recommend this page where a whole bunch of asylum seeker myths are convincingly debunked. You can also follow this author on Twitter.
Latest posts by Weh Yeoh (see all)
- How to value over one billion people - December 3, 2013
- Who sets the international development agenda? We do! - October 1, 2013
This work, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.